Brownsville, Minn.: Gateway to underground railroad?

TCR/LAURA DEERING The inside of a cave near Brownsville, Minn., which people escaping slavery used as hiding spots, linking Brownsville to the Underground Railroad network.
By : 
Laura Deering

“They hid them in caves.”

Reading this personal hand-typed document from decades ago, made my hands tremble. I handled the document on recently-completed trip to research the Underground Railroad in nearby Brownsville, Minn. Readers may recall a six-part series in the Tri-County Record last year related to Rushford’s known Underground Railroad safe house. That research made many wonder, where did the escaping slaves arrive from?

Brownsville, Minn., is located 31 miles from Rushford and is situated on the Mississippi River. The river served as a major escape route, as travel on river vessels was the major mode of transportation. Southern plantation owners would often head north to the Twin Cities during the summer by steamboat to enjoy the cooler weather. Commonly, they brought their slaves in tow. Slaves seeking escape were also hidden in riverboats.

Brownsville was the first natural boat landing in the upper Mississippi region, the perfect stop to drop off and pick up passengers and goods. Since “safe houses” on the Underground Railroad included caves (houses and barns were also used), this made Brownsville, with easy river access and many nearby caves, a great possibility as a stop for escaping slaves enroute to Rushford.

Further research revealed Brownsville to be an even stronger candidate. First, early Brownsville appeared to have been sympathetic to black community members. Prior to the Civil War Joseph Taylor, a black newspaper pressman, worked in Brownsville. Taylor had earlier witnessed the murder of Rev. Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois. Lovejoy owned an anti-slavery newspaper and angry mobs would often harass him. One night such a mob set fire to his office and killed the Reverend. Standing at a safe distance, Taylor watched the horrific scene—which included throwing the printing press into the river—unfold. Later Taylor directed a group of abolitionists to retrieve the printing press and it went to Brownsville, as did its talented pressman, Taylor.

Brownsville caves

During a recent visit to Brownsville I met with Rich Cordes, with the Houston County Historical Society. In addition to serving as a custodian to the Brownsville caves, Cordes was a trifecta of a host; possessing access, historical knowledge, and a helpful, can-do personality.

Cordes showed me four caves along the Mississippi River, directly across from the site used by steamboats and river vessels for docking. According to my host, the caves were used for storage of produce such as apples and potatoes. Travelers heading south on Highway 26 can see the caves on the right side, carved into the auburn limestone bluff.

Unlocking the doors of two caves, Cordes pointed out the large circular breathing holes in the ceiling, with a chiseled shelf / bench area in the rear. Thankfully due to the breathing holes, the caves were neither damp nor musty.

I was struck by the width of the breathing holes. It reminded me of the Rushford’s Underground Railroad house, where access to the hidden room via a narrow passage likely required a rope to get up and down. Cordes then shared his knowledge of four more caves, some on private property. He described one of them having a breathing hole with what appears to be chiseled spiral steps within the hole.

Brownsville was quickly checking off the boxes of being part of the Underground Railroad network; access to the Mississippi River, sympathetic town folks, limestone caves, and a known Indian trail to the Root River that connects to Rushford.

Finally, Brownsville also matched the setting as documented by one of the most detailed recollections of Minnesota’s role in the Underground Railroad. That account was given by a 63-year-old black man named Joseph Farr, who worked as a steamboat porter in Galena, Ill. Interviewed years ago, Farr told a St. Paul reporter the network came up with “all kind of schemes to separate slaves from their owners and sneak them on to riverboats.”

Another ploy used by Harriet Tubman; she would immerse herself among slaves and whisper to them, if they wanted to escape to meet her at a certain time and place. Both methods of hiding and convincing slaves, makes Brownsville a highly likely candidate of helping slaves get into the southeast Minnesota Underground railroad network.

Next Stop – Houston, Minn.

There’s quite a distance separating Brownsville and Rushford, and I was curious where escaping slaves hid in between. This is where the visit to Brownsville took on a fascinating turn, when Cordes shared the aged, personal document written by Mrs. Margaret Radtke. In this document, Radtke describes how her grandfather, W.G. McSpadden, founded Houston, Minn. in the early 1850s (he is credited for also taking a part in naming Houston, Texas). McSpadden, a larger-than-life figure, was born in Ireland and served in the Mexican War under Sam Houston, whom he obviously admired. McSpadden also fought in the Civil War and  marched with General Sherman all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. When McSpadden returned to Houston, Minn., he brought with him a young black man, referred to in Radke’s chronicle as “Cal.”

To determine the validity of the Radtke document, I searched for any connection of Cal with McSpadden, and that research paid off (rainy days make for good research days). In the 1870 federal census, it listed Cal with race of “B” for black, living with the McSpadden household in Houston, Minn. Later McSpadden moved to South Dakota. A resident in the same community was Cal Simmons, married with four children. The bond between Simmons and McSpadden was evident, with Simmons later laid to rest in the McSpadden family plot.

Now with evidence that correlates to the Radtke document, it provided support of Houston being the safe stop between Brownsville and Rushford.

Radtke describes, “Upstairs in an old building, which I remember as a hog house. Was a loft where hay was kept. Up there, most of the time hidden by hay, was a small house about the size of a girl’s playhouse. It contained a cot, a chair, a desk or table built against the wall, and a large hanging clock.” Radtke continues, “Below the hill back of this building (hog house)…was a cave, large enough for three men to stand in.”

Sometimes the internet does not have it all and visiting places is worth the time. The Houston County Historical site in Caledonia is outstanding, and Brownsville is a charming community with breath-taking views of the river. While the internet is world-wide, sometimes the best discoveries are in your own backyard.





thanks this was a great piece.

Thank you so much for this wonderful & exciting article. I am 51 yrs old & grew up in Hokah, MN which is between Brownsville & Houston, MN.  I had no idea that all of this history was all around me & I was amazed to read all that you wrote. Just reading this makes me want to dig deeper in the history of not only my own town, but the surrounding towns as well! I really enjoyed your article & look forward to more!  Take care & great job! 
Michelle (McCallson) Lang

This was an awesome read. Thanks for writing it.

Great article - I'm glad southeast Minnesota had a part in this!